Obituary: Bob Arnold

BOB ARNOLD was the last authentic countryman in the BBC's everyday story of country folk. Where once The Archers was a rolling, reeling soap opera with agricultural storylines - tales of Foot and Mouth and the rotation of crops mixed with country-pub wisdom and frank rural nostalgia - it has now degenerated into a radio saga of New Age travellers and well-meaning women vicars.

Arnold played Tom Forrest, the son of a gamekeeper who became in turn a gamekeeper. He served the landed grandees of the programme - Squire Lawson-Hope, George Fairbrother, Charles Grenville and Ralph Bellamy: where are they now? - before working his last post for the wonderful self-made Birmingham businessman Jack Woolley, doyen of Grey Gables. When he retired in 1976 Woolley gave him a silver tea-set.

Forrest was not a central figure in the Ambridge story. Gamekeeping was not a leading plot line even in the 1950s when he first featured. He was not an Archer, either, but, since his sister Doris (1900-1980) had married Dan Archer (1896-1986), he was a much-loved "Uncle Tom" to the present tiller of Brookfield's golden acres, Philip Archer (1928-), and his family.

In a programme where the absence of a cast-member for six months can pass without notice, his prominence depended not so much on what he did - his triumphs at the Ambridge flower show, even the awful occasion when he was tried for manslaughter for shooting a poacher - as on the particular, amiably avuncular character he developed. He suffered - goodness how he suffered; he was a martyr about his wife Pru, who languished somewhere in a sanatorium, but gave up speaking in the 1950s. (Her only appearance in 30 years was in 1989, for The Archers' 10,000th episode, when she sounded remarkably like Judi Dench.) He was benign, but he could be jolly tetchy; he had the most comforting rustic voice (and was a great bar singer), but he was not of this age.

It was his voice which recommended him to Godfrey Baseley, the creator of The Archers, as the introducer of the weekly Sunday omnibus, and it was through this role that he somehow came to epitomise the programme. For 30 years, Tom Forrest's rather William-Boot-ish "Nature Notes" set the scene for those who could not keep up with Monday-to-Friday listening. "The warm friendly `burr' to his voice was just what was needed," wrote Baseley in 1971:

This is a mood or scene setter, when [Tom Forrest] talks to listeners directly about the seasons, the behaviour of the wild life in the woods and fields, or he can reminisce on days and events in his lifetime and regularly recall old sayings and proverbs that have stood the test of time and are still applicable today.

"Nature Notes" were endearing, and extremely old-fashioned.

Thomas William Forrest was born on 20 October 1910. George Richard Arnold was born on 27 December (though he preferred to say Boxing Day) the same year, six years Baseley's junior. Base- ley was the son of a Worcestershire butcher, who was sent to a Quaker school at Sibford, near Banbury, in Oxfordshire; "Bob" Arnold was a few miles south, the son of the village publican, in Asthall, near Burford, best known as the childhood home - Asthall Manor - of Nancy Mitford and her sisters. (While Baseley was a direct contemporary of Nancy, Arnold was the same age as Diana, later wife of Sir Oswald Mosley.)

Arnold attended the village school, until it closed when he was 11, and then the school at Swinbrook up the road, until he was 14, when he became a butcher's boy in Burford. At the age of 22 he spent 15 months in hospital with tuberculosis of the spine before working for Oxfordshire County Council painting white lines on the roads.

His break came in 1937 with a radio programme called In the Cotswolds, on the strength of which he became a regular entertainer, singing at village concerts and parties - in Baseley's words "a good rumbustious folk singer".

After war service in the RAF in Heywood, Lancashire (his TB barred him from active duties, and he was his Commanding Officer's batman), he went back to the BBC for Children's Hour and Through the Garden Gate. When The Archers was mooted (as "A farming Dick Barton", a country take on the very successful daily thriller), he was keen to join the team, but Baseley thought his accent was "too recognisable" and it was not until March 1951, three months after the programme began, that he was enrolled as the gamekeeper Tom Forrest. Even so, wrote Baseley, "it always seems as though [Tom Forrest] was there from the beginning".

Bob Arnold made a sideline in folk music, contributing to such BBC programmes as Folk on 2, and collecting songs remembered from his Asthall pub youth ("Boozing, Jolly Old Boozing" was one) for recordings. In 1972 he produced an album, Mornin' All (picking up his "Nature Notes" catchphrase), with the Yetties. He made his last appearance on The Archers last Christmas. He was singing folksongs in the Bull.

George Richard ("Bob") Arnold, actor: born Asthall, Oxfordshire 27 December 1910; married 1948 Dorothy Coleridge (died 1990; one daughter); died Salisbury, Wiltshire 27 August 1998.

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